So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. ~ Ephesians 2:19-21
This hymn was written in 1866 by Reverend Samuel Stone in response to a heresy spreading through the Anglican church at that time. A few years earlier, John Colenso, an Anglican bishop had published an essay questioning the inerrancy of Scripture. He believed that much of the Old Testament was mythology, and that Jesus had taught wrong things about Moses.
Several other Anglican bishops and ministers immediately responded to defend Christian orthodoxy, which led to a schism in the church. Samuel Stone wrote a series of twelve hymns, based on the twelve articles of the Apostle’s Creed. This collection was called Lyra Fidelium (Lyre of the Faithful) and is available online here.
From this collection, the only hymn generally remembered today is “The Church’s One Foundation”, which was based on the ninth article of the Creed. It was set to a tune by Samuel Wesley, and included as one of the “modern” hymns in Wesley’s 1868 publication, Hymns Ancient and Modern.
The folks at Perimeter Church in Atlanta have recently recorded a new arrangement of this hymn, making use of Wesley's melody, which you may also recognize as the tune used for the Getty hymn "Facing a Task Unfinished."
Indelible Grace Music has retuned this hymn with a new melody as well:
The Church’s one Foundation
Is Jesus Christ her Lord;
She is His new creation
By water and the word:
From heaven He came and sought her
To be His holy Bride;
With His own blood he bought her,
And for her life He died.
Elect from every nation,
Yet one o’er all the earth,
Her charter of salvation
One Lord, one faith, one birth;
One Holy Name she blesses,
Partakes one holy food,
And to one hope she presses,
With every grace endued.
Though with a scornful wonder
Men see her sore opprest,
By schisms rent asunder,
By heresies distrest,
Yet saints their watch are keeping,
Their cry goes up, “How long?”
And soon the night of weeping
Shall be the morn of song.
‘Mid toil and tribulation,
And tumult of her war,
She waits the consummation
Of peace for evermore;
Till with the vision glorious
Her longing eyes are blest,
And the great Church victorious
Shall be the Church at rest.
Yet she on earth hath union
With God the Three in One,
And mystic sweet communion
With those whose rest is won:
O happy ones and holy!
Lord, give us grace that we,
Like them, the meek and lowly,
On high may dwell with Thee.
The Church isn’t perfect. Though Christ is the head of his Body, the church (Colossians 1:18), the members of that Body are fallible, sinful people. Because of this, there have always been misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and sometimes even outright lies set forth by representatives of the Church. This makes the Church an easy target for criticism.
No matter how valid some of that criticism may be, we are called to love the Church, and through the Church to demonstrate Christ’s love to the world. In fact, one of the primary ways in which Scripture tells us we may know that we are saved is by the love we have for our brothers and sisters in Christ (1 John 3:14).
The text of this hymn contains a lot of great teaching about the doctrine of the Church. In the first verse, we see why the Church is of supreme importance: Christ gave himself up for her, so that he might redeem her with his own blood (Acts 20:28), and then sanctify her by the water and the word (Ephesians 5:25-26).
Christ’s church consists of “elect from every nation”. The Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) instructs Christians to make disciples of every nation, and from the Book of Revelation we see that when Christ returns, this will have been accomplished (Revelation 5:9; 7:9). True believers are united by one Lord (Jesus Christ), one faith (the doctrinal truths which all genuine Christians share), and one birth (the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit which baptizes believers into the Body of Christ), as we read in Ephesians 4:4-6. We express this unity through the two ordinances given the church: water baptism (Acts 22:16) and the Lord’s Supper (“one holy food”; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26).
The third verse, which is usually not included in modern hymnals, speaks of the kinds of divisions and heresies which have ravaged the Church throughout history, which was the occasion for the writing of this hymn. Though Satan is eager to attack the Church, and may wound her, he will never be successful in completely destroying her (Matthew 16:18). The following verse speaks of the peace that we have which is rooted in the knowledge and hope of Christ’s return. This is what allows us to endure the “toils and tribulations” which we must face.
In the final verse of the hymn, we sing of the mystic union (the “unio mystica”) that exists between God and the Christian (John 17:20-23), and between the saints from throughout history. Hebrews 4 speaks of God’s rest, into which some have already entered. This rest has been earned and promised for all believers through Christ’s atoning sacrifice, but we may not enter into it until our death or Christ’s return and the final consummation of all things. Until then, we rejoice in the promise of this blessed hope, and pray for the Lord’s grace that we may grow in maturity and Christlikeness until the future day when we shall be united in perfection with Christ and his Body, singing the song of the redeemed for all eternity.
No, the Church isn’t perfect… but She will be!